Is the arrogance of Frankenstein his greatest crime? Are we at risk of forcing scientists today to stand on the same pedestal?
In ‘Love your Monsters’ Bruno Latour argues that Frankesteins greatest crime is abandoning his creation.
I would suggest that Frankensteins greatest crime is his arrogance.
Frankenstein places himself above his equals early in the tale; his reaction to the opinions of his father, his judgement of his lecturers, his lack of engagement with his family or peers. He conducts his work in secrecy, taking no account of or consultation with others. He commits acts he himself ‘trembles’ to recall, without considering any values other than completion of the work at hand.
Even when the work has been completed he still does not engage. At the loss of the creature he fears not for the creature or its impact but only that his friends and peers will judge him delusional if he mentions it. After the death of his younger brother, when he does hold himself accountable, he still maintains his silence; as if he is the only person able to conceive of or understand the situation. The first death could be an avoidable accident but the death of the innocent Justine is placed entirely at the feet of Frankenstein. There is a suggestion that he recognises this crime; he maligns his obsession fearing that the ship’s Captain has also drunk ‘the intoxicating draught’ and he portrays the wisdom of those he loved.
Had he valued this wisdom earlier the ensuing tragedies may have been prevented. But of course this is a story, and without the arrogance of Frankenstein Shelley’s tale is unlikely to have lasted as well as it has.
It is however an interesting experiment to discuss what might have happened if Frankenstein had stepped down from his high horse to have a chat…
Let us consider three possible outcomes to the question ‘is this a good idea?’
a) Yes – this is astonishing, let us support you in your efforts
b) Maybe – but perhaps we should start smaller, or think about the consequences, or perhaps not make a person quite so large that it can squash your skull with one hand…
c) No – this is completely unethical and should never have been thought of
In outcome a) Frankenstein completes his Creation, but he is not the only one responsible for it. He can’t just wander off and ignore it creating the abandonment that leads to the subsequent tragedies.
In outcome b) perhaps the Creation is never made, but much smaller studies of the science are completed. Perhaps Frankenstein can’t claim to be the ‘sole’ creator. Perhaps, after much discussion with his wife and family and the local community, Frankenstein decides to focus his attention on healing instead of regeneration. Perhaps the direction of the science is changed.
In outcome c) the Scientist may be prevented from completing his work, or even ostracized or demonised for what has already been done. Perhaps Frankenstein gets demonised for even thinking of the idea, but the science is out there; many great ‘men’ have been demonised and justified. Or perhaps more to the point, if you’re not telling anyone because someone is going to tell you to stop – perhaps there’s a damn good reason why they should.
I would argue that Frankenstein’s greatest crime was arrogance; but would I say that it was entirely his fault?
The clever conceit of the book is that Frankenstein is right. He is brilliant. He is described as such by the Ship’s Captain and at this point in the tale Frankenstein is a broken man; so how fabulous he must he have been in his prime.
The point is that being ‘brilliant’ doesn’t necessarily make you ‘better’. Elizabeth had hardly any of the achievements of Frankenstein, but even he can see the positive impact she bought to the lives of those around her. It’s a shame she didn’t have more of an effect on him. Why then, as the love of his life and the person most likely to influence him, didn’t she have more of an impact?
At every stage in the whole sorry story he is allowed to continue without anyone trying to stop him, support him or ask what the hell he was doing. Like all those considered ‘elite’ Frankenstein is on a pedestal which is reinforced by his family and the society in which he lives. The community isolates Frankenstein just as much as he does so himself.
It is rare that Science, or people, are as clear cut as stories but there are many examples where echoes of Frankensteins arrogance, and his lack of engagement with those around him, can be seen.
- The ‘self-governance’ approach in 1975 of the Asilomar conference by the chosen ‘elite’ (and its echoes in recent technological discussions);
- Failure to involve farmers in the discussion of foot and mouth crisis leading to flawed scientific advice;
- The ‘Green revolution’; development of ‘low price / high yeild’ crops that may have increased inequality rather than reduced it;
- The governance of self-driving cars being discussed ‘after’ a crash,
- The rhetoric of ‘should’ and a lack of regulation in the recent governments A.I. report (summary),
- the atomic bomb…
We still place Science on a pedestal, at a distance above society, we don’t get involved until we are afraid, we hope and trust our ‘Scientists’ are brilliant, and we don’t want to ‘get in the way of progress’.
Frankenstein was brilliant. But would stepping off his pedestal have made him a lesser person or a better person?
The answer seems obvious, and yet it is not something we are enabling our own Scientific ‘experts’ to do today. We place them on a pedestal and require them to ‘speak truth to power’ on our behalf. When it turns out that ‘truth’ is a difficult concept we tell them we are sick of them.
Down-climbing from the pedestal is a treacherous challenge, but if Science is to achieve its greatest potential impact and least potential harm, it is a challenge the Scientist and the layman will have to overcome together.
2018 will mark the 200th anniversary since the publication of Mary Shelleys Frankenstein. It will be a year of Monsters, Science, Literature and Debate. Who really was the Monster? Should emerging science learn from the ‘Creation’?
Literature reviews will revel in Mary Shelleys remarkable ability to capture our fear of the unknown in a piece of work so fresh and relevant in could have been written this decade – not two hundred years ago. And there will be small children painted in green with a pretend bolt through their heads, because some images just stick.
200 years on and as an allegory for Science, Scientists and Technology ‘Frankenstein’ still has tales to tell.